Tim Hill owns Colorado Fly Fishing Guides in the Rocky Mountain town of Leadville. He had a thriving two-season business, running a fly-fishing shop in the warmer months, and renting ski gear in the winter to tourists flocking to the region’s famous slopes.
Then came COVID-19.
Gov. Jared Polis ordered ski resorts in Vail, Breckenridge, and other parts of Colorado to shut down on March 14, crippling Hill’s operation even before a general stay-at-home order further closed the state weeks later. Local merchants, including Hill, received more bad news in May when authorities announced the cancellation of the Leadville Race Series, a series of extreme competitions that draws athletes from around the world.
As he reopens for fly-fishing season, Hill shared his thoughts with Fortune for a special series, The Coronavirus Economy, on how to run a business in times of crisis, and how those in charge should protect public health while also preserving the economy.
Here is a record of the conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Fortune: How are you feeling about the coming season?
Hill: That’s the big question. I want to say we’ll probably be all right for the summer just because fly-fishing naturally lends itself to social distances in the first place. I think we’ll have more in-state clientele and probably see more customers looking to do something within driving distance—I don’t anticipate people are going to major attractions like Hawaii or Disneyland, and I’m hoping that it might be to our advantage.
We usually guide a few hundred people a year. Typically, our guiding customers are from out of state: the Midwest, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, a lot of folks from Texas. Later in the season, we get a lot of the people who come up for the race series, which we won’t have this summer. We’d guide some of the athletes and the people who support them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens this season without those events.
Interestingly enough, May has been stronger than in the past. We were able to let people in the store on May 1, but not guide anyone out of county until May 15 or so. After that, we’ve actually ended up guiding more people than we ever had. I don’t know if it’s because people aren’t doing other things, not traveling and stuff. Most of those people have been from in state.
How did the COVID-19 outbreak affect your business?
What was most affected was the ski shop part of it. When the ski areas closed down, we missed spring break, which counts for 30% of our net income. We took a pretty big shot there.
We were impacted pretty harshly. I haven’t spent any advertising dollars since the outbreak. That part of the budget went away. That’s just part of the reality of it, know what I mean? Some things get cut out.
How did this affect the people you employ? Did the Paycheck Protection Program help?
I had to put staff on unemployment insurance until I got a PPP loan. The first round of funding was pretty confusing for a guy like me because I don’t really deal with that kind of stuff. I’m not really connected with lenders and that whole process. The guidance was really unclear until it was too late to apply. Once I got better guidance, I was able to apply for the second round. It took a couple weeks. I used my local bank, Pueblo Bank & Trust. They were submitting applications 24 hours a day.
Then I was able to put these guys back to work. But that only covers two months’ payroll. I don’t think a lot of people realize what the cost of business is. You have supplies, equipment, licensing, advertising, fees, inventory you have to keep stocked. And PPP doesn’t cover that.
Are you afraid of another outbreak?
Yes, that’s my biggest fear right now—what the ski season will look like next winter. They may limit capacity. And if it gets bad, they could shut them down again. And if that happens, we’ll be in trouble.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs? For government officials?
I guess what I would share is about the ability to stay patient and stay persistent, and don’t give up.
The other thing I would say is that I think it’s important to communicate with your local health departments. Local governments have left all the policy on reopening and keeping the community safe in their hands. And health departments are run by health experts, not economic experts.
It helps if business owners remind them they have a responsibility to protect economic health too. In other words, you can’t take one side or the other. You’re not going to save every life just like you’re not going to save every business, but you have to come to somewhere in between.
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